The Ancient Capitol: Xi’An

The great thing about being a Peace Corps China volunteer in 2017 is we get to take full advantage of the growth of high speed rails across the country. Last year, a visit to Xi’An would have taken 9 or 10 hours by train. Now, it’s a quick 3 hour trip – which makes for the perfect weekend getaway!Fullscreen capture 1262017 101959 PM.bmp

Xi’An (pronounced shee-an) is one of the ancient capitols of China- 1,500 years ago, when Beijing was a backwater nobodyville, Xi’An was already a bustling metropolis. In the Tang dynasty it was the largest city in the world by population, with over a million inhabitants inside the city walls and another 2 million outside.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102213 PM.bmp

The later Ming Dynasty walls remain today, creating a massive, rectangular 14km perimeter around the city center. Visitors can climb to the top and walk or bike around, getting great views of the interior and exterior city. The sky was rather polluted the day I went, but it was still a contemplative experience, nonetheless.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102222 PM.bmp


One of the famous dishes in Xi’An is biang biang noodles, named after the thwacking noise the dough makes when it is repeatedly slapped onto the table and stretched over and over again. The noodles are as wide as a belt, but at the same time very thin, and remind me Lanzhou’s da-kuan noodles.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102006 PM.bmp

The character for Biang Biang is extremely complex (see below) with 57 strokes needed before it can be written out. It is essentially total artistic nonsense, and never made it into the great, definitive Kangxi Dictionary. There are over 47,000 recognized characters in the dictionary and biang biang is not one of them. Case closed!Fullscreen capture 1262017 102012 PM.bmp.jpg


Wild Goose Pagodas

A short bike ride south outside of the city walls will bring you to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the Tang Dynasty. Originally the structure was 10 stories in height, but subsequent earthquakes and rebuildings have left it at its current 7 stories.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102037 PM.bmpIn 627 AD, the famous monk Xuangzang left China on a 17 year, road-trip journey to India, in an effort to gain a more enlightened understanding of Buddhism and bring back hundreds of original Sanskrit texts.journey.jpg

The Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed to house the texts and related translations, and also to honor his journey and spirit. Across town the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built a short while later in 707 AD. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102114 PM.bmpAs more and more pilgrims returned from India with Buddhist texts, the two pagodas (and Xi’An as a whole) became a symbol for the spread of Buddhism throughout China.

Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts

This is a museum that is not to be missed! The Qujiang Museum is a private (AKA pricey admissions) museum, but absolutely worth it. The highlight is several rooms displaying works of pure gold through several dynasties. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102101 PM.bmpThe gold work is mostly filigree- fine gold threads that are then woven together to form baskets, headpieces/ crowns, and (my favorite) vases.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102911 PM.bmp

Precious gems- rubies, pearls, jades – are securely embedded into most of the pieces, and little animal figurines can be spotted throughout. There were gold phoenixes, dragons, bats, and elks that were easily identifiable, all thought to bring good luck to the very fortunate and wealthy owner of the piece.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102054 PM.bmp

I’ve seen some of the most exclusive works of gold housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei- this collection easily rivals the best in the world.

Muslim Bazaar

No Chinese city is complete without a night market- and in the heart of Xi’an there is the wonderful, energetic Muslim Bazaar. This is one of the larger night markets I’ve experienced in mainland China, and it was a surprising amount of fun.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102133 PM.bmp

It’s absolutely packed on the weekends with all sorts of snacks to savor and trinkets to buy. There was a refreshing variety of goods for sale – I drank several cups of fresh squeezed pomegranate/ coconut/ sugar cane juice, and found myself running to the bathroom to relieve my bladder on several occasions. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102127 PM.bmpXi’An is also famous for Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍  (Mutton and soaked bread) which I obviously had to try.Fullscreen capture 1262017 103159 PM.bmp

This is a three step meal:

  • You’re first given an empty bowl with some very firm, round bread.
  • This then needs to be shredded by hand into small pieces (mine were massive chunks but the locals could break the bread down to a much more refined size).
  • The bowl is handed back to the waiter, who will take it to the chef, who then pours a boiling mutton broth over the bread. Some sliced lamb and other condiments are added, before the bowl is return to you. Slurp quickly!Fullscreen capture 1262017 103315 PM.bmp

It’s all quite enjoyable, and quickly warmed me up as I was sitting outside in the chilly November night. The soup congeals though as it cools- so it must be finished ASAP

There’s something for everyone at the market- carnivores will delight in skeletons of sheep and other animals, purposely hung to be gawked at by visitors. Vendors cut the flesh off the carcass and skewer them into kebabs for roasting.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102141 PM.bmp

Vegans can find something delicious too- including fresh jackfruit, sliced on request. Is it just me, or does this giant fruit eerily resemble the leg of a lamb, or maybe Spanish iberico ham displayed at a banquet?? Fullscreen capture 1262017 102145 PM.bmp

This trip to Xi’An was one of my most interesting and rewarding weekends yet. Luxury malls and high rises dominate the noisy central roads, but one or two side-streets away, the atmosphere is completely serene.

Biking around on those one lane streets, I could hear the dry leaves scraping the ground in circular patterns below me, and songbirds confined to their cages chirping in the trees above. In some ways, Xi’An has not changed at all after 1,500 years


School Happenings

Broadcast Exercise Competition (广播体操比赛)

A few weeks ago my afternoon class was cancelled – over half my students would instead take part in the “Broadcast Exercise Competition.” I had no idea what that was so I walked over with the remaining kids to the stadium to watch the spectacle.Fullscreen capture 11282017 92441 PM.bmp

This was a competition for the freshmen only, in which the choreography is literally just stretching. In unison, the students bend and reach their toes, swing their bodies side to side, and lift their knees up to their chests. Every team is required to use the same song – it’s a very communist propaganda sounding piece, with uplifting horns and flutes and reminds me of theme songs from Pokemon Stadium and Zelda, if CCTV were to mash those tunes together to use before announcing some dramatic, breaking news headlines.Fullscreen capture 11282017 92509 PM.bmp

We also happen to hear this tune on the loudspeakers EVERY MORNING, five days a week at 9:55AM, when the first period is over and students walk to their second class. The lyrics are also limited to counting:




1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

3, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

And so on (up to 8, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!), for several minutes to different tempos. (double time!!)Fullscreen capture 11282017 94843 PM.bmp

So now there is a two hour contest with hundreds of 18 year-old teenagers do the exact same choreography, something they could have memorized in kindergarten. Part of me is thinking this is really dumb and reinforces all these negative stereotypes about Chinese youth and their propensity to conforming to others/ lack creative thought, but then part of me is just grateful that afternoon class was cancelled.  Fullscreen capture 11282017 92541 PM.bmp

From the back row of the bleachers, my students and I still have our fun. We give ridiculous nicknames to each team. Above is a photo of Team Scrambled Eggs and Tomatoes 番茄炒鸡蛋Fullscreen capture 11282017 92614 PM.bmp

Here is Team Egg Whites: 蛋白 in all their yolk-less glory

And my students in the English Department- ready to be served with a steak and potatoes – Team Carrots and Peas (萝卜豆苗)!!  Fullscreen capture 11282017 92644 PM.bmp

The next day I ask my kids how they did. They laugh.


“Second to Last Place!”

Speech Contest

Our Wednesday nights have been busy- there are a variety of English-based contest requiring the expertise that only Peace Corps volunteers can provide. Some evenings are more successful and enjoyable than others. You can see with the speech contest that the students were given a wide range of intellectually stimulating topics to cover:Fullscreen capture 11282017 92807 PM.bmp

  • My Vision of Beautiful China
  • Big, Big World and Big China
  • China in my Eyes
  • China on the Rise
  • China in my own Eyes
  • China – a new face in the world
  • The magical China

There is no room for debate- the communist party is doing an excellent job and we are all fortunate to be sharing in the success of the Chinese Dream!!! To think otherwise makes you an ungrateful, Japanese-loving, delusional self-loathing piece of garbage!!!

Judging the speech contest is a chance for me to practice “Miss Universe Face”- sit with good posture, smile politely, and clap robotically for 90 minutes. I also am required to ask follow up questions for each contestant:

“How has China’s growth improved your daily life?”

“In Beijing we had Olympics and now One Belt One Road… and China is strong, yes, and the Shanghai Expo in 2010 with many visitors from around the world… and the economy with China, and then political, yes -”

“Okay great! Thank You!!”

English Drama and Stage Play

On the other hand, the English drama/ stage play (话剧) competition is much more enjoyable and relaxed. The kids seem genuinely interested in putting together something funny and creative, and instead of working off pre-selected topics glorifying the leadership of China, they get to choose their own stories to portray.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93350 PM.bmp

The students come prepared with a set of costumes and props. I’m always surprised when my seemingly timid and shy students can stand in front of 100 people and deliver a hilarious skit, behind the anonymity of a fairy tale character, or physical mask.

Highlights included Snow White and the 7 Dwarves, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Little Red Riding Hood, and the a scene involving the Monkey King.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93404 PM.bmp

One phrase commonly repeated throughout the night in various dramas: “I WILL KILL YOU!” I think everyone is secretly drawn to violence– its human nature to love bloodshed, and now the kids have their chance to dabble in a bit of imaginary murder.


To celebrate Thanksgiving, my sitemate Michelle and I took the opportunity to invite a group of sophomores to come and cook for us. They got a roast chicken, made “coca-cola wings” and an assortment of dumplings (everyone makes / wraps dumplings differently – like fingerprints or snowflakestruly unique). Michelle did the mashed potatoes and corn, and I put together some semblance of string beans and quinoa.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93505 PM.bmp

Everything was delicious, to varying degrees, and the wings and potatoes were easily finished by the end of dinner. The quinoa not so much, and the string beans even less so, so I have a lot of work to do before the next Thanksgiving!Fullscreen capture 11282017 93619 PM.bmp

Michelle also made a killer dessert pudding made of purple yam (called ube), and we had a blueberry cheesecake from Breadtalk.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93608 PM.bmp

Overall I have a ton to be grateful for in 2017- too many people, things, and events to list out… Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!!

From Xining to Zhangye

Xining: Tibetan Medicine Museum

Earlier this autumn I made a weekend trip to Xining, taking the 70 minute bullet train. Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, and the gateway to areas of China with heavier Tibetan influence.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM.bmp

I was there to visit the Tibetan Medicine Museum of China to see the Great Thangka. A Thangka (tangkasnet) is a Tibetan Buddhist painting done on cotton or silk. In this style of art, there is always one large figure in the center, surrounded by dozens of smaller demi-gods, animals, and monks depicting a Buddhist story. Here is an example, courtesy of Wikipedia:Fullscreen capture 11212017 62554 PM.bmp

The thangka is always colorful and ornate, meticulously painted with layers of blue ocean waves, deep red temple facades, and gold or silver lining saved for clouds and deities.

What makes the Great Thangka special is its sheer size and length – this is a scroll painting 618 meters (2,000+ feet!!!) in length and 1,000 kg in weight – which took 300 artists over 25 years to complete. Walking into the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14042 PM.bmp

Wall after wall, room after room, was this never-ending scroll painting as far as the eye could see. Every square inch of visible surface-area was covered in colors and stories- there were elephants, tortured human skeletons, vultures, blue-skinned fire demons, dragons, and historical figures important to Tibetan Buddhism.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14029 PM.bmp

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I had the entire exhibit to myself. In retrospect I should have requested a guide to help me further appreciate the artwork, to better understand the major themes and fables depicted. Fullscreen capture 11212017 14035 PM.bmp

Had it not been for the green arrows on the floor guiding visitors through the museum, I definitely would have been lost at some point. The experience was similar to wandering through a corn maze, only slightly more artistic and lacking screaming children.

Here is a floor map of the exhibit; from above it looks a bit like our large intestines (I drew a yellow line to helpfully indicate the thangka snaking through the museum).Fullscreen capture 11212017 62604 PM.bmp

I am really curious about the logistics of outlining, painting, storing, transporting, and installing the Great Thangka. Researching this might just be my Peace Corps secondary project, instead of fixing up the dreaded “Book Nook”.

Zhangye: Danxia Geopark and the Giant Buddha

Several weeks later I again headed north-west from Lanzhou for three and a half hours via bullet train, this time to Zhangye.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM_1.bmp

Zhangye is famous for the Danxia National Geopark, a rock formation landscape similar to the Grand Canyon. With good weather and angled sunlight, the rich colors of the earth streak through the mountainside in reds, yellows, cream, and every color in between.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14301 PM.bmp

Danxia is about forty minutes away from Zhangye downtown by private car. After arriving at the geopark, I hitched a ride on the park bus that came every ten minutes or so, stopping at each viewpoint to admire various rock formations.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14253 PM.bmp

Chinese love giving ridiculous, long-winded names to odd shaped rocks on mountains and hills- the Danxia Geopark is no different. Below are some fancy titles for the sculpted landscape, and if you squint hard enough, maybe you could see a scallop or monkey, but I honestly just saw dirt-colored cliffs.

  • Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus
  • Colorful Meeting Fairy Deck
  • Spirit Monkey View Sea
  • Supernatural Tortoise Looks at the Sky

Also worth noting that every image on Google has been photoshopped and saturated beyond reality, and what I saw with my eyes looked nothing like what a visitor may have expected, if they were to believe Google.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62548 PM.bmp

The other must-see landmark in Zhangye is the Giant Sleeping Buddha (张掖大佛寺). This slumbering sculpture is the largest of its kind in China – and thankfully, has barely been touched since its creation in the Western Xia Dynasty 900+ years ago.02-20121111-08_cn-sleepingbuddha-sml

The Buddha is held together by a hollow wooden frame coated in a layer of clay, and painted over. A panorama shows its true scale: 157 feet long x 24 feet wide at its highest (shoulder to shoulder). He is guarded by ten disciples behind him, and two on either side of his head and feet.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62530 PM.bmp

No photography was allowed inside, so these are Google photos. Behind the statue on the wall were Ming Dynasty murals retelling scenes from Journey to the West (interestingly, the wall paintings were completed before the book 西游记 was written, so many of these tales about the Monkey King existed along the Silk Road well before they reached the rest of China!). There’s also a legend that Kublai Khan was born here, but so far there’s little evidence of this.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14214 PM.bmp

The temple exterior is unadorned and unpainted. There are banners along the entrance pillars with a beautiful poem, written in traditional Chinese characters:

Sleep Buddha, long may you slumber
Sleep 1,000 years
Slumber forever, do not awaken
Those who ask, question forever
Question 100 centuries
Never ask, and you will never know

Of course I made a sketch of this too, with the poem written in gold ink glimmering against a black midnight sky, overlooking Zhangye’s Giant Buddha. May he sleep for another 100 centuries!Fullscreen capture 11212017 62540 PM.bmp


Halloween “Party”

The English Association hosted its annual Halloween party Tuesday night! First, it’s important to note that all school “parties” I’ve attended thus far have never included dancing or socialization; in actuality they are talent shows. In most of China, there are no Middle School dances or High School proms- just a lot of studying for the College Entrance Exam; it’s a real pity an entire generation of kids never learned to relax and get loose and have a good time.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84630 PM.bmp

The Halloween party is an event that’s most enjoyable if the adult attendees (AKA me and my site-mate Michelle) show up moderately drunk. I learned my lesson from last year, when I made the fatal mistake of sitting through 90 minutes of student performances completely sober.

My costume this year is “Masque of the Red Death”, the titular character from Edgar Allen Poe’s infamous poem, where a diseased spirit enters a patrician party uninvited, and murders everyone attending the masquerade at the stroke of midnight.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84635 PM.bmp

There’s not a lot that goes into my costume except a red mask, and several large gulps of beer are enough to turn my face blotchy-red, which was just the look I was going for!

Anyway, we walk into the Halloween talent show, and the Dean is sitting in the front row, smiling. We quickly join him and take our seats, and I feel like we are judges on American Idol or the X Factor. Dean Jiang is Simon Cowell of course, so I guess that makes me the non-threatening, overweight black producer, and Michelle gets to be the unsuccessful crossover-Latina popstar.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84622 PM.bmp

The show does not disappoint.

The first performance is a hip hop dance. The music turns on, and the instantly recognizable – nay, iconic – shouting of Lil’ Jon blasts through the auditorium.


Michelle and I laugh uncontrollably. Dean Jiang is genuinely curious about what we find funny [he speaks perfect English, but can’t quite pick up on these cultural niceties the same way we can]. I feel like these kids choose songs without even bothering to check the lyrics, and in that sense their irreverence is pretty awesome… a part of me hopes they intentionally picked Lil’ Jon to see what they can get away with – which would make them way cooler and more rebellious than I imagined.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84643 PM.bmp

A while later, Michelle and I have to perform our duet (Peace Corps volunteers are always expected to participate): we are singing “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana, which is basically the poor man’s “Let It Go” from Frozen.“ How Far I’ll Go” unwisely uses the word ‘island’ at the end of a verse, and since nothing rhymes with island, the word is used again and again, which ruins the flow of the song. Fullscreen capture 1132017 84909 PM.bmp

Michelle does a good job singing her part, but I was way out of tune and missed the best lines of the chorus where I should have belted out some big notes (and I practiced in the shower for this too! Sad!!).

But in the end we all had a good time, and I saw some cool magic tricks performed by a magician, and a solo “Indian Bridal Dance” from my bravest freshman student, Candy. I’m not too bummed about my poor singing this time around, since I already know we will have to sing at several other events through the end of the year. This was just a warm-up – I may pull out my drunk Whitney Houston for our next “party”!